the barbary pirates -- 8/29/22

Today's selection -- from Biddle, Jackson, and A Nation in Turmoil: The Infamous Bank War by Cordelia Frances Biddle. The Barbary pirates, the Americans, and the payment of ransom:
"America's history with the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers had been fraught with broken treaties. In 1784, Barbary pirates (named for their fe­rocity and their sailors who armed themselves with knives in each hand and one clenched between their teeth) boarded an American brig, Betsy, and imprisoned her crew. They subsequently captured two more American ships and demanded $60,000 (today's equivalent of $12 million) in ransom. Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Minister (Ambassador) to France, advised against paying. He believed the action would increase rather than decrease the depredations. Congress chose ransom, paying a yearly tribute until 1800, but peace remained tenuous.

"In October 1800, the bashaw of Tripoli, Jussuf Caramalli (Yusuf Qa­ramalli), sent a letter to President Adams demanding an increase in tribute monies. Caramalli threatened additional attacks on American merchantmen otherwise. Without waiting for a response either from Adams or Jefferson, who was inaugurated March 1801, the bashaw cut down the flagstaff of the American consulate in Tripoli on May 14, 1801, and declared war on the United States. It was understood that only bombardment and a full blockade could undermine the bashaw's power. Two years passed in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. U.S. Navy ships patrolled the Barbary Coast, taking prizes as often as possible, but more frequently watching the enemy slip away into the safety of its harbors.

"On August 24th, 1803, the Philadelphia anchored at Gibraltar, and from there, began patrolling the Barbary Coast to seize enemy vessels. Bainbridge and his officers and crew met with success, but the ports remained safe havens for enemy ships that could slip past their pursuers. On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia sighted an enemy vessel approaching Tripoli harbor. Determined to capture it, Bainbridge opted for a dangerous maneuver, ordering his ship to sail at full speed despite a harbor entrance filled with reefs and shoals. Soundings were regularly taken when a shout of 'half-six'' (fathoms) rang out. A moment later, the Philadelphia's bow struck a reef with such force that she was partially grounded. Because Bainbridge had deep water astern, he ordered all cannons thrown overboard to lighten the ship's load; the water casks were also jettisoned. The efforts failed. As the bashaw's gunboats approached, Bainbridge command­ed that the magazine be drowned and holes pierced in the hull to scuttle the vessel rather than have it taken as a prize. At five o'clock, his men hauled down the flag, and the captain surrendered rather than risk the lives of the crew.

"The bashaw's men immediately swarmed aboard, carrying off anything of value they could find and forcing the prisoners into gunboats. One of the in­vaders attempted to rip a miniature portrait of Bainbridge's wife from his neck, but the captain fought this final indignity with such force that the would-be thief fell overboard. After that, Bainbridge and his officers and crewmen were delivered to the streets of Tripoli, where they were pushed and dragged through screaming throngs until they reached the royal palace. The route was lined with men hurling abuse at the 'Amerikanos.' Wounded, bloody, and ill-clad, the three-hundred-fifteen prisoners had no cognizance of how lengthy their captivity would become.

"When the news reached America four months later, [influential Philadelphian] Charles [Biddle] began formulating a plan for rescuing the prisoners [which included his brother]. Intending to outfit a 'fast-sailing vessel,' he also proposed captaining it. Wiser heads prevailed, one being Jef­ferson, who suggested that the idea, though noble, was ill-advised and might further endanger the captives. Charles acquiesced to the President's wishes, but he chafed under the directive and later regretted acceding to it. Adding insult to injury, the bashaw's men refloated the Philadelphia, pulled the cannons from the harbor depths, and moored the vessel a quarter of a mile from the royal residence. The American ship became a symbol of the bashaw's defiance. Refit­ted, the frigate could be used against the United States Navy.

"In a conference with his superiors, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Deca­tur hatched a plan to destroy the Philadelphia before it became an enemy vessel. Decatur's strategy was fraught with danger. He asked for volunteers to sail with him aboard the ketch Intrepid. Disguised as a merchantman, the Intrepid would enter Tripoli Harbor, whereupon its captain and crew would board the Philadel­phia and set it ablaze. Seventy-two men immediately presented themselves for duty. …

"On February 16, 1804, amid light seas and favorable winds, the Intrepid approached Tripoli harbor. A Sicilian pilot capable of conversing with the Trip­olitans had joined the crew. Below decks, there was scarcely room to move; the provision of salted meat had turned rancid, leaving bread and water the sole sus­tenance. A gale lasting six days had nearly sunk the ketch, but the severe buffet­ing aided the Intrepid's disguise. Decatur had also set out draglines, slowing the ketch's progress to appear afflicted in the extreme. All but twelve of his men were hidden, most lying flat on the decks. The captain's orders had been methodical: once he and his men boarded the Philadelphia, they planned to search it deck by deck, then set the frigate ablaze before returning to the Intrepid and escaping back out to sea. Speed was essential. There were other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one being that gunboats and galleys surrounded the Philadelphia.

Burning of the USS Philadelphia as painted (1897) by Edward Moran. (U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis)

"The Intrepid made its laborious way into the harbor. When the ketch came within hailing distance of the Philadelphia, the Sicilian pilot commenced a long discourse detailing his ship's travails. The Tripolitans stationed aboard the Philadelphia were fooled. They even sent a boar to aid the unfortunate pilot. The moment Decatur and his men were within reach of the Philadelphia, they swarmed up her chain plates and then raced through the ship as planned, killing as many of the enemy as possible.

"Within twenty-five minutes, Decatur had taken possession of the Phila­delphia. Then came the moment for which all had prepared. Taking torches to the tar and pitch, they set fire to the American frigate. Decatur and his men barely had time to jump down into the safety of their ketch before the Philadel­phia erupted in flame. The Intrepid was so close to the burning ship the blaze almost consumed it as well. Pulling clear at the last minute, the men gave three cheers for victory, which roused the bashaw's men stationed on the gunboats. They opened fire on the retreating ketch as the entire bay turned orange-red, reflecting the burning Philadelphia. Hearing the noise, the prisoners who knew nothing of Decatur's actions assumed the worst.

"Peace and the captives' release remained elusive. Not until autumn 1804 was an equally daring plan put in motion. William Eaton, the American Naval Agent for Barbary, had become acquainted with Caramalli's deposed brother, Hamet, in Tunis while serving as American consul. Aided by American marines and a ragtag mercenary force of Greeks and Arabs, Eaton and Hamet marched five hundred miles through the Desert of Barca. They captured the stronghold of Derna, south of Benghazi, on April 27, 1805. Fearing that Eaton's force would take Tripoli next, Jusuf Caramalli sued for peace.

"A treaty finally secured, the American prisoners were released on June 4, 1805. They had been imprisoned for twenty months. When the news reached the United States, patriotic fervor knew no bounds."



Cordelia Frances Biddle


Biddle, Jackson, and A Nation in Turmoil: The Infamous Bank War


Oxford Southern


Copyright 2021 by Cordelia Frances Biddle


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